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Making an Effective MAYDAY Call

A commercial fishermen makes a mock-distress call during an emergency procedures drill.

The ability to signal for help is a critical skill during an emergency at sea. On any vessel equipped with a marine radio, that signal will be conveyed by radio. There are three internationally recognized radio signals used for marine emergencies: MAYDAY, PAN-PAN, and SECURITY. All three have priority over other radio traffic. MAYDAY calls also have priority over other emergencies signals. The MAYDAY signal is reserved for en emergency where a vessel or life is threatened by grave and imminent danger, and a request is made for immediate assistance.

A MAYDAY call needs to convey five critical pieces of information, the MAYDAY signal; the vessel name and/or description; position of the vessel (latitude & longitude or geographic location); the nature of the emergency; and the number of people on board. Yet often, in the stress of the situation, this information is not conveyed. Listen to this distress call from 2006 and imagine difficulty rescuers had trying to locate the vessel.

We understand that the crew of this vessel were eventually rescued, but the distress call could have been more effective. In Drill Conductor workshops we emphasize that everyone on board must know how to make a MAYDAY call and they must practice it during emergency drills. So, just as a refresher, how do we make a MAYDAY call?

  1. Turn the radio ON to VHF 16 or SSB 4125;

  2. Press & hold the transmit button on mic, THEN speak clearly;


  4. Vessel Name: _______________ and/or vessel description;

  5. Position - latitude & longitude or geographic location (i.e. fourteen miles southwest of Cape Conception);

  6. Nature of the emergency;

  7. Number of people on board;

  8. Release button and listen;

  9. Wait 10 seconds, if possible, then repeat until you get a response or until you abandon ship.

Remember, all vessels have a duty to pass on unanswered MAYDAY calls. So what does an effective MAYDAY call sound like? Listen to this distress call from February 2017.

We encourage you to learn more about emergency signals and drills. You can learn more by reading, Beating the Odds: A Guide to Commercial Fishing Safety, and you can see drill scenarios in the video, Beating the Odds: Onboard Emergency Drills.

Might we suggest attending a Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor workshop? Although designed for commercial fishermen, the course will benefit anyone who spends time on the water with hands-on training with marine safety & survival gear and procedures. Check out the list of upcoming workshops on our homepage. And feel free to print out this graphic and post it near your marine radio. Just click to open a downloadable file!

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